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All 13 Owl Species Found in South Dakota (With Pictures & Info)

From the rolling prairies to the rugged Badlands and Black Hills, South Dakota provides a diverse range of habitats for an array of owl species. This article gives you a comprehensive look at the different owls that inhabit this state, whether they are commonly found or if their sightings are considered accidental by the South Dakota Ornithologist’s Union.

Whether you’re an ornithologist, a bird watcher, or simply an owl enthusiast, this guide will surely pique your interest and deepen your understanding of these fascinating nocturnal raptors.

Owl Species Found in South Dakota

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl
  • Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
  • Size: 46-63 cm (18-24.8 in)
  • Weight: 910-2500 g (2-5.5 lbs)
  • Wingspan: 101-145 cm (40-57 in)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Great Horned Owl, one of the most common owls in North America, is a year-round resident of South Dakota. Adaptable and versatile, this owl can be found in a variety of habitats including mixed forests, swamps, deserts, tundra edges, and tropical rainforests.

Known for its large size, tufted ears, and deep hooting voice, the Great Horned Owl has a reputation for being a fierce and efficient hunter. It’s not uncommon for them to take on prey larger than themselves, including raccoons, rabbits, and even other raptors. These birds prefer to nest in the abandoned nests of other birds, particularly those of Red-tailed Hawks.

Did you know? The Great Horned Owl is sometimes called the “Tiger Owl” due to its aggressive nature and the distinctive barring on its chest, which vaguely resembles tiger stripes.

Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern Screech Owl
  • Scientific name: Megascops asio
  • Size: 16-25 cm (6.3-9.8 in)
  • Weight: 121-244 g (4.3-8.6 oz)
  • Wingspan: 46-61 cm (18-24 in)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Eastern Screech Owl, a smaller species of owl, is a permanent resident of South Dakota. This owl favors wooded areas near bodies of water. It possesses a remarkable ability to camouflage itself against tree barks, thanks to its gray or rufous coloration.

Despite its name, the Eastern Screech Owl does not screech. Instead, it emits a series of whinnies and soft trills. It’s known to take a wide variety of prey, from small mammals to birds and invertebrates. Like the Great Horned Owl, it often uses nest boxes or natural tree cavities for nesting.

Did you know? Eastern Screech Owls are often victim to brood parasitism by the Brown-headed Cowbird, a bird that lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl
  • Scientific name: Strix varia
  • Size: 40-63 cm (16-25 in)
  • Weight: 500-1050 g (1.1-2.3 lbs)
  • Wingspan: 96-125 cm (38-49 in)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

Also a resident of South Dakota, the Barred Owl prefers deep, mature forests, wooded swamps, and areas close to water bodies. These owls are known for their distinctive and complex vocalizations that sound like the phrase, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”

Barred Owls hunt at night and are opportunistic predators. Their diet consists mainly of small mammals, but they also eat birds, amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates. They nest in tree cavities or use abandoned nests of other birds.

Did you know? Unlike most owls, Barred Owls have dark eyes instead of the typical yellow. Their name refers to the horizontal ‘bars’ on their chest.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl
  • Scientific name: Tyto alba
  • Size: 33-39 cm (13-15 in)
  • Weight: 224-710 g (7.9-25.0 oz)
  • Wingspan: 80-95 cm (31-37 in)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

Barn Owls are found throughout South Dakota and are easily identifiable due to their distinctive heart-shaped face, pale coloring, and long legs. These birds prefer open habitats, such as fields, meadows, and marshes.

They are nocturnal and are known for their silent flight which allows them to effectively catch rodents, their primary food source.

Barn Owls are cavity nesters and, as the name suggests, often choose to roost in barns, old buildings, or other man-made structures. They can also be found in natural cavities in trees.

Did you know? Barn Owls have an incredible sense of hearing. Their ears are so finely tuned that they can hunt in complete darkness just by listening for their prey.

Northern Saw-Whet Owl

Northern Saw-Whet Owl
  • Scientific name: Aegolius acadicus
  • Size: 17-22 cm (7-9 in)
  • Weight: 54-151 g (1.9-5.3 oz)
  • Wingspan: 42-56.3 cm (16.5-22.2 in)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Northern Saw-Whet Owl is another small owl species present in South Dakota. This bird prefers dense forests and is known for its high-pitched, repetitive tooting whistle. It hunts mainly at dusk and dawn, feeding primarily on small mammals such as mice and voles.

Despite its small size, the Northern Saw-Whet Owl is quite fierce and doesn’t shy away from hunting birds and mammals larger than itself. It nests in tree cavities and will often reuse old woodpecker holes.

Did you know? The name “Saw-Whet” comes from the bird’s song, which some say sounds like a saw being sharpened on a whetting stone.

Long-Eared Owl

Long-Eared Owl
  • Scientific name: Asio otus
  • Size: 31-40 cm (12-16 in)
  • Weight: 178-435 g (6.3-15.3 oz)
  • Wingspan: 90-100 cm (35-39 in)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

The Long-Eared Owl, named for its tall, feathered “ear” tufts, is a medium-sized owl found in South Dakota’s forested areas, preferably with nearby open spaces for hunting. They are primarily nocturnal, making them a bit more elusive for the casual observer.

These owls are known to lead a solitary lifestyle outside of the breeding season when they form small, loose colonies. Their diet mainly consists of small mammals, but they also consume birds when available.

Did you know? When Long-Eared Owls feel threatened, they stretch their bodies and tighten their plumage to appear like a tree branch, thereby camouflaging themselves against potential predators.

Short-Eared Owl

Short-Eared Owl
  • Scientific name: Asio flammeus
  • Size: 34-43 cm (13-17 in)
  • Weight: 206-475 g (7.3-16.8 oz)
  • Wingspan: 85-110 cm (33-43 in)
  • Time of the year: Year-round

Short-Eared Owls are among the most widely distributed owls globally, and South Dakota is part of their extensive range. Unlike most other owl species, Short-Eared Owls are diurnal (active during the day), especially at dawn and dusk.

These owls are most commonly found in open country, such as prairies, fields, or marshes, where they hunt for rodents and other small mammals. Their flight is distinctive, featuring buoyant, moth-like wingbeats.

Did you know? Despite their name, Short-Eared Owls do have “ear” tufts, but they’re so small that they’re often not visible, leading to the bird’s name.

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl
  • Scientific name: Athene cunicularia
  • Size: 23-28 cm (9-11 in)
  • Weight: 140-240 g (4.9-8.5 oz)
  • Wingspan: 50-61 cm (21-24 in)
  • Time of the year: Primarily spring to late fall, migrates for winter

The Burrowing Owl is a fascinating species and a true testament to adaptability. Unlike most owl species that are tree-dwelling, these owls make their homes in burrows on the ground, typically taking over those abandoned by prairie dogs or other burrowing creatures. They are common in the grasslands of South Dakota, particularly in the western parts of the state.

Active during the day and night, Burrowing Owls feed on insects and small rodents. They have a distinctive appearance with their long legs, round heads, and bright yellow eyes framed by prominent white eyebrows.

Did you know? To deter predators from their nests, Burrowing Owls mimic the rattling buzz of a rattlesnake.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl
  • Scientific name: Bubo scandiacus
  • Size: 52-71 cm (20-28 in)
  • Weight: 1.6-3 kg (3.5-6.6 lb)
  • Wingspan: 125-150 cm (49-59 in)
  • Time of the year: Primarily winter, migratory

Stunning and elusive, the Snowy Owl is a birdwatcher’s dream find. They migrate south from their Arctic breeding grounds during the winter, with some reaching as far south as South Dakota. The open, treeless plains of the state resemble their natural tundra habitat.

Snowy Owls have a distinctive white plumage that helps them blend into their snowy surroundings. Unlike most owls, they are diurnal, hunting for small mammals and birds during the day.

Did you know? Female Snowy Owls are larger and darker than males. As males grow older, they become almost pure white.

Flammulated Owl (Accidental)

Flammulated Owl
  • Scientific name: Psiloscops flammeolus
  • Size: 15-16 cm (5.9-6.3 in)
  • Weight: 45-65 g (1.6-2.3 oz)
  • Wingspan: 36 cm (14 in)
  • Time of the year: Accidental, no specific timeframe

The Flammulated Owl is a small, tree-dwelling owl species that is characterized by its short, feather-covered legs and dark eyes. With a subtly flame-like pattern in its plumage, from which it gets its name, this owl prefers forested habitats, particularly those with mature, old-growth trees.

Its presence in South Dakota is accidental, meaning it’s not usually found in the state, but there have been occasional sightings. This nocturnal species feeds on insects and is known for its soft, low hooting calls.

Did you know? The Flammulated Owl is one of the smallest owl species, and it’s named for the flame-like markings on its face.

Northern Hawk Owl (Accidental)

Northern Hawk Owl
  • Scientific name: Surnia ulula
  • Size: 36-42.5 cm (14-16.7 in)
  • Weight: 300-400 g (10.6-14.1 oz)
  • Wingspan: 69-82 cm (27-32 in)
  • Time of the year: Accidental, no specific timeframe

The Northern Hawk Owl, as its name implies, has characteristics of both owls and hawks. Its long tail and perching habits are reminiscent of a hawk, while its round face and nocturnal nature are typical owl traits. Its preferred habitats are typically in northern boreal forests, far from human habitation.

The presence of this owl in South Dakota is considered accidental, meaning it’s not typically found in this region. The species is well known for its ability to detect—primarily by sight—prey at a distance of up to 800 meters (half a mile).

Did you know? Despite its owl classification, the Northern Hawk Owl hunts primarily during the day, just like a hawk!

Great Gray Owl (Accidental)

Great Grey Owl
  • Scientific name: Strix nebulosa
  • Size: 61-84 cm (24-33 in)
  • Weight: 790-1450 g (27.9-51.1 oz)
  • Wingspan: 142 cm (56 in)
  • Time of the year: Accidental, no specific timeframe

Known as the Phantom of the North, the Great Gray Owl is one of the largest owl species in the world. It boasts a remarkable wingspan and size, yet it is actually lighter than it looks due to its fluffy plumage. The Great Gray Owl is best known for its distinctive facial disc, giving it an appearance of great wisdom and age.

In South Dakota, sighting this owl is considered accidental as they typically inhabit the northern boreal forests. Their hunting strategy involves perching on a high spot and diving down onto prey hidden under the snow or in the grass.

Did you know? The Great Gray Owl has exceptional hearing, and it can locate prey hidden under a foot of snow or in tunnels below the ground!

Boreal Owl (Accidental)

Boreal Owl
  • Scientific name: Aegolius funereus
  • Size: 22-27 cm (8.7-10.6 in)
  • Weight: 93-170 g (3.3-6.0 oz)
  • Wingspan: 55 cm (21.6 in)
  • Time of the year: Accidental, no specific timeframe

A little owl with a big attitude, the Boreal Owl is a northern species that can sometimes venture south, leading to accidental sightings in South Dakota. Recognized by its distinct white facial disc, spotted head, and yellow eyes, this owl prefers boreal forests and alpine regions.

Boreal Owls feed primarily on small mammals, particularly voles, and they are known for their distinctive trilling call, which echoes through the silent winter nights in the boreal forest. Despite their small size, these owls are fierce hunters and can take down prey larger than themselves.

Did you know? The Boreal Owl is also known as the “Tengmalm’s Owl” in Europe, named after the Swedish naturalist Peter Gustaf Tengmalm.

Where & How to Observe Owls in South Dakota

From the expansive grasslands to the rugged terrain of the Black Hills and Badlands, South Dakota is a state filled with diverse habitats that support a myriad of bird species, including owls. However, owls are elusive, and spotting them can be a thrilling challenge.

  1. Black Hills National Forest: This mountainous region in western South Dakota is a haven for Great Horned Owls and Eastern Screech Owls. It’s also where you might accidentally stumble upon a Boreal Owl.
  2. Badlands National Park: As the sun sets, the grasslands and rocky outcroppings of this national park become a hunting ground for Burrowing Owls.
  3. Custer State Park: This park’s diverse habitats attract a variety of owls, including Great Horned Owls and occasionally, Barred Owls.
  4. Bear Butte State Park: The mix of grasslands and small wooded areas can attract Barn Owls and other species.
  5. The Prairie Pothole Region: This region, known for its shallow wetlands and grasslands, is a great place to look for Short-Eared Owls and Northern Saw-Whet Owls.
  6. Big Sioux Recreation Area: Located in the state’s eastern corner, this area’s forested sections can be great for spotting Barred Owls.

Quick Tips For Owl Spotting

  • Time of Day: Owls are mostly nocturnal, so your best bet to spot them is during dusk and dawn. However, some species like the Burrowing Owl and Northern Hawk Owl can be active during the day.
  • Be Quiet: Owls have keen hearing, so avoid loud noises that could scare them away.
  • Look Up: Owls often perch high in trees during the day. Look for silhouette shapes or droppings and pellets at the base of trees.
  • Listen: Learn the calls of different owl species. Their vocalizations can often lead you to their location.
  • Patience: Spotting owls can take time. Be patient and enjoy the peacefulness of nature while you wait.
  • Respect Nature: Remember, owls are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes it illegal to harass, capture, or kill these birds. Always observe from a distance and respect their habitats.
  • Guided Tours: Consider joining a guided birdwatching tour, where experienced guides can help you spot and identify these magnificent birds.

Happy owl spotting in South Dakota!

Owls in Other States

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